NJEA hasn't moved enough on tenure

The Courier-Post
12/13/10

System from a bygone era that mostly protects bad teachers needs to be radically altered.

In most professions, workers who consistently under-perform can be fired, and it doesn’t matter if they’ve been on the job for 10 weeks or 10 years. And that makes sense. Why should a business or institution have to keep an employee who clearly isn’t doing quality work?

However, in public education, there exists something known as tenure. Essentially, for teachers in New Jersey, it means this: Put in three years on the job and clear the tenure hurdle and that job is more or less yours for life unless you get caught doing something outrageously inappropriate.

Sure, school districts can move to fire bad tenured teachers who won’t resign. But the district must craft formal tenure charges and proceed through the state’s administrative courts. The process is so unwieldy, so time-consuming and so expensive (often six figures in legal bills and court costs) that very few districts pursue tenure cases.

From January 2009 through July 2010, the New Jersey Department of Education recorded only 29 tenure decisions by the education commissioner, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. That despite there being more than 129,000 full-time educators who worked in New Jersey’s public schools last year.

Crooked numbers

Out of those 129,000 people, only 29 who had tenure performed poorly enough to warrant their district moving to fire them? Teachers union officials will say with straight faces that’s evidence of how good all teachers in this state are doing.

Please. Are we all really so naive as to believe that only two hundredths of 1 percent of all teachers warrant firing for poor performance?

Here’s some reality: In any workplace, there are always going to be great workers, OK workers and a few bad workers. That’s universal, it doesn’t matter if it’s a factory, a bank, a restaurant or a school. Eventually, the really bad ones should get axed if they don’t quit first.

Here’s another dose of reality: School districts in New Jersey often don’t fire bad teachers because of tenure; it’s just too hard and too expensive to get rid of them if they won’t go on their own.

So who benefits from tenure for life after just three years working? Certainly educators who are lazy, incompetent or insubordinate do. They’re protected.

What about the much larger group of good teachers who energize students and shine in the classroom? Well, they don’t need tenure as much because generally they aren’t going to be in danger of being fired. Certainly there are exceptions where a few parents or a school board member with an ax to grind might try to oust a good teacher. But, there are other layers of protection from this.

What about students . . . do they benefit from tenure? Not really. In fact, where tenure allows lousy teachers to stay on the job year after year, students lose.

Like the old rule that prevents towns in New Jersey from having a choice about being part of the civil service system once they’ve opted in, tenure, in its current form, is a vestige of the past. A century ago when tenure was created, corruption and open patronage were so much more rampant and there were virtually no protections for teachers from unjust firings.

Today, things have changed quite a bit. For one, teachers have a powerful union, the New Jersey Education Association, that will fight for them. Secondly, there is now myriad case law established by the courts and federal and state law that protects American workers from wrongful termination.

Compromise

Gov. Chris Christie has proposed getting rid of lifetime tenure for educators altogether. In response, the NJEA last week offered a weak counterproposal: Move tenure cases where districts are trying to fire poor teachers from the courts to arbitrators to reduce the time and cost of resolving such cases.

Just taking tenure cases out of the courts isn’t nearly enough of a compromise.

There is room for common ground here that doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of tenure altogether. One potential framework that comes to mind is a system where tenure is something educators must re-qualify for at regular intervals (say, every two years) based on performance reviews and other factors. Of course, even under a system like that, it needs to be made easier, and far less costly, for districts to get rid of bad employees.

The NJEA has a lot further to come in its proposals toward reasonable tenure reform than the governor does because, ultimately, common sense is on the governor’s side. Outside of public education and Major League Baseball umpires, very few American workers enjoy the virtually job-for-life protection that’s afforded by the tenure system in New Jersey.

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